BRIAN AZZARELLO INTERVIEWED BY NEAL SHAFFER
Comic book authors don’t generally get the kind of credit that is afforded to writers in other media. Given the visual nature of the medium, it’s easy to see why. But it’s also easy – too easy – to forget that the wonderful art we enjoy in these books starts somewhere, and that place is the script. There are a handful of writers in the business now who are doing work so distinctive that comic books are gaining a wider reputation as a way to enjoy the best of both worlds. Of them, one of the best is Brian Azzarello.
He remains, however, something of an enigma. He doesn’t have his own website, doesn’t post regularly to the various message boards, and an Internet search reveals only a smattering of previously published interviews. It doesn’t really matter, as his work speaks for itself, but it’s somewhat puzzling that more hasn’t been written about his presence in the industry.
So it was, on a recent Monday afternoon, that Azzarello donated his time to “Open Your Mouth” and discussed a range of things, the relevant portions of which appear below
I want to keep this somewhat focused on processes and big picture stuff, because I see a lack of good resources out there for comics writers. Especially people that are relatively new to it, to get into the nuts and bolts of it with people who’ve done it before.
I think one of the reasons that that’s the case is that there’s no hard and fast way to do it. Like if you were gonna write a screenplay, you’d have to format it a certain way or nobody’s gonna look at it. It’s not like that in comics.
I think that’s kind of liberating.
Well…yeah, it is, if you’re not too worried about the form. But you really should master a form if you’re gonna try to do it.
I actually use Final Draft, and I think Bendis does as well, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones.
What do you use?
I use Word, man. You know, when I do work on a screenplay, I use Final Draft. But for comics… when I started scripting comics I didn’t have Final Draft, I just had a word processor when I started. That’s what I’m comfortable doing. If they said tomorrow, you gotta start using Final Draft, I’d probably start using it.
I do also want to get into some stuff that I’m sure you’ve answered a million times before…
(Laughing) I don’t want to answer those questions.
Well, fair enough… the only thing I think you probably don’t want to answer but I’m going to ask anyway is the “How did you first get into it?” question. Because I think everybody’s got a story that always helps to hear for somebody that’s trying to do it.
Man, mine’s no good. I fell into it. I got to know an editor.
What were you doing beforehand?
I was restoring antique furniture.
I imagine you had to be doing some writing, though.
Not really… I’d written some videos.
Videos? How does that happen?
(Laughing) Somebody asked me to do it. It’s funny… all right, as far as background goes? I got a Bachelor in Fine Arts… I got a painting degree. That and a buck fifty’ll get you on the bus.
I have a lot of friends with that problem. So you ended up restoring antique furniture with your painting degree?
Well, you know…
It makes sense.
First I was a house painter… I was a janitor for a while… I did demolition, which was a great job.
It sounds like a great job.
It is. You go into a space, and you knock the shit out of it.
My perception is that you didn’t really spend a lot of time working your way up through the ranks. I first heard about you with “100 Bullets,” and I know that’s been going on for a while now. That wasn’t your first work, I’m sure.
How many things did you have to do before you got to the point where you had that kind of creative control?
Well, I did some independent stuff, but that was just messing around. My first Vertigo stuff was… they had some anthology titles I did some work on. That’s how I got my foot in the door. Then there was my first regular series, actually a miniseries, and that was called “Johnny Double,” and I did that with Eduardo (Risso). In the middle of that they realized that we were almost done, and that this was a pretty good book and somebody was gonna give us work, so they gave us more work.
What year was that?
I don’t have a clue… mid-nineties.
And “100 Bullets” has been going on for three or four years now?
Something like that. We’re in the forties now, so over three years.
How do you work? I imagine you work daily, but is it on a schedule or do you work as it comes? How’s that break down for you?
I’m usually getting down to work by ten or eleven. My day, I wake up, I read the paper, have some coffee.
I tend to start at, like, seven or eight and work until midnight or one.
You know, I used to work that way, but I got married, and that changes things. When you’re living for yourself, it’s your own schedule pretty much. But you get married and you don’t make time for somebody else and, you know, you ain’t gonna be married very long.
So you’re working from ten to, what, five or six?
You’ve done a lot of work for both Marvel and DC.
I haven’t really done a lot for Marvel.
But you’ve seen the inner workings of the Big Two. I’m not asking you to compare, but there’s a perception that there’s some kind of huge problem, that comics are headed in the wrong direction. It’s on message boards all the time. You’re pretty much at the top of the game… what do you think the state of this as a viable creative medium is now?
Umm… personally, for me, it’s very healthy.
Well, you know, that’s the first concern.
Ahhh… message boards, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure if you go to a lacrosse message board, it’s gonna be full of whiners too. That just seems like the kind of people that are on the Internet are whiners.
You know, when people talk about things they tend to bitch about ’em. And the Internet’s the biggest bitch-fest I’ve ever seen. I don’t post… once in awhile, but generally I’m against it. Some people are very deep in the Net, creator-wise. For me, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. For one thing I don’t have time. And I think I get a much – when I read what people are saying about my work – much more honest opinion if they don’t know I’m there. A lot of it is, like, “I wanna be your friend” and, I don’t know… I’m too old for new friends.
Too old for new friends? I’m not gonna ask, but I’m sure you’re not that old.
You know, it’s funny. I was out with some friends, and this one guy asked me “If you could go back, be a kid, would you?” And we were talking about what a pain it was, high school and all that other shit, and I said “Yes, definitely.” I would do it all over again – it’s worth the pain.
Anyway, back to Marvel and DC. What do you wanna know?
Well, I think it’s probably neither as good or as bad as it can seem from the people that spend a lot of time talking about it. So, I’m curious about the inner workings. It seems to me like I’ve spoken to a lot of people that seem perfectly cool, and a lot of people that don’t – on all sides. It seems no different than any other business setting.
There’s pros and cons to it. A lot of people look at the work-for-hire arrangement suspiciously. If you know who you’re getting into bed with and what you’re gonna do when you’re there, there shouldn’t be any problem.
Maybe a lot of people don’t pay enough attention to that end of it, and that’s why they say they got screwed.
Yeah. You sign a contract before you work, right? Read the contract, know what your rights are, and all that other shit. If you can live with it, you do the work.
It seems like DC treats you and your book very well… is that accurate?
Unless it’s privileged information, how many copies do you sell a month?
I don’t know… we’re in the twenty thousand range, which doesn’t sound very good, and monthly it isn’t very good. But you put the trade into the equation and we are very successful. The trades do very well.
That seems to be the way things are heading in general.
I think so, yeah.
What do you think about that? It seems inevitable, but there’s something about the monthly format that still has some viability.
Sure. I think it does, but in the book market it doesn’t. Trades are getting comics outside of the direct market and into bookstores, and that’s good. Because the direct market, I think that’s where a lot of problems came from. Comics crashed, and the only game in town was the direct market, which wasn’t selling very well. Now people are buying them in bookstores. I mean, I’ve got brothers who read “100 Bullets” and they go out to Barnes and Noble and buy it.
But in terms of the way a book is written, I think that it’s a different experience to write something that’s designed to be a one-shot. I think for storytelling’s sake, one of the things I like about the monthly format is that it forces you to do some interesting stuff.
I refer to it as the difference between writing for television and writing for film. Writing monthly comics is writing for TV – it’s the same sort of mindset because it’s serialized. It’s funny, because “100 Bullets” does really well in the trades, which means that people wait for the trade. I write that thing as a monthly comic. People say, “It just reads better in the trade.” I don’t know if it does. To me, it doesn’t.
That’s what I wanted to get at. I think there’s something nice about the idea that there’s no end to this, only a stopping point that comes every 22 pages. It puts certain demands on you that are fun to fulfill, for lack of a better way to put it. I’d hate to see that disappear.
I just wrote “Sgt. Rock,” which is 140 pages, to be published as a graphic novel. It became a different process for me than writing a monthly book. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I liked doing it, but it was a… I had a lot of wiggle room. Maybe because I’ve been working in the monthly format for so long, I enjoy the parameters of “Get in, tell your story, and get out.” Even if it’s a longer, six-issue arc, you better make damn sure something happens in those 22 pages.
I read an interview where you mentioned that you do heavy outlining before you actually sit down to do the script. How heavy?
I write out the story, figure out where the breaks are gonna be, and then break it down by pages.
I know what’s gonna happen on every damn page.
I’ve heard arguments on all sides of what’s the best way to go about it.
I like to know what’s coming next. Again, it’s putting parameters on myself so I don’t get long-winded or indulgent. For me, every page has to have a point. Something’s gotta happen on every page, either visually or through dialogue, that furthers the story.
It works for me. Would it work for everybody? I don’t know, I don’t know anybody else that does things that way. I write all my dialogue before I do any art direction.
How much art direction do you give?
I hate doing art direction.
I’ve picked up screenwriting books and the only lesson I’ve ever learned from them is the idea that there’s a director, and if you say too much you’re just gonna piss him off. I try to only give my direction in terms of either suggestions or only what is essential. To leave the angles, the positioning, and what-not up to the artist.
Oh, you have to. Coming from an artistic background, the last thing I wanna do is treat an artist like he’s a pair of hands. If I have such a stubborn vision of how this is supposed to look, I should be drawing it myself.
The other thing, my opinion of art direction, is that I’ve seen people’s scripts that look like they were written for me to see. I don’t work that way. For one thing, I’m paid per-script – I’m not gonna spend all my time doing art direction. I write it for the editor and the artist, and that’s it. If anyone else sees it and can glom something off it that’s fine, but I didn’t write it for you or anybody but the editor and the artist.
This is a collaborative medium. Everybody should bring something to the table. I write the scripts, Eduardo does the art, and he’s as much if not more so responsible for this book as I am. It’s a visual medium – you pick up the book, and if it looks good you’re gonna buy it. I don’t care what the words say because you’re not gonna read it in the store.
You guys benefit from having some of the most outstanding covers I’ve ever seen.
Oh, Dave is amazing. Eduardo, Dave, and I kind of have the same philosophy: do as little as you possibly can, but make it really strong.
I’m a big David Mamet fan, and I think you can learn a lot from his economy.
I tell everybody when they ask me, “I wanna write comics, who should I read?” invariably I say Hemingway. Read Hemingway.
Any writer will benefit from that.
He’s a perfect writer for somebody who wants to write comics because you don’t have a lot of room inside of a balloon. You’ve got no room for William Faulkner monologue; there’s not a lot of room for run-on sentences. Get in there, say what you’re supposed to say, get out.
The same is true of reading the great, American crime novels – Cain, Chandler, etc. – for the same reason. Even if you don’t want to write that kind of story, those are a model of economy while still maintaining the external things that make you want to keep reading, the feel of it. Without being too short, they still never say more than they really need to.
What’s great about those is what they don’t say. That’s something that, as a writer, I’m very cognizant of in my work. What’s being said is not really what’s being said.
My thanks to Neal Shaffer for guest hosting for me this week. Make sure to check out his book One Plus One illustrated by Daniel Krall and published by Oni Press. It’s one of my favorite miniseries to come out this past year, and a trade paperback is scheduled for a September release.
Next week: Comic Book Idol.
Thank you for your attention.